Caracas Goes Thirsty as Power Crisis Shuts Down Water Plants

(Bloomberg) -- Caracas began going dry Monday as Venezuela’s power crisis put utilities out of commission, risking supplies for 5.5 million people, many of whom found themselves reduced to carrying buckets of filthy river water.

Service, intermittent in normal times, was scarce to nonexistent in large swathes of the capital and experts saw little reason for hope. Caracas is 900 meters above sea level and water comes from the Tuy system of reservoirs and pumping stations below. Those depend on a reliable electric supply of 2,000 megawatts, said Norberto Bausson, who was the head of state utility Hidrocapital in the 1990s.

“As of this morning, this system hasn’t been restarted yet,” Bausson said Monday. “The supply of water for the city is at risk.”

Caracas Goes Thirsty as Power Crisis Shuts Down Water Plants

The power crisis -- and now the water crisis -- are testing the hold of strongman President Nicolas Maduro. Opposition leader Juan Guaido is trying to topple him after a re-election widely viewed as fraudulent and using as his main argument widespread deprivation after six years of Maduro’s rule. Hunger is widespread in the nation. Its infrastructure has decayed to critical levels.

Army Franchise

The water system, troubled for years, has been hanging by a thread for months. The military, which enjoys many economic franchises granted by Maduro, lords over the supply, cornering a lucrative trade as reservoirs empty, broken pipes flood neighborhoods and overwhelmed personnel walk out. Those who can afford a fresh supply often pay for it.

But now, any clean water is scarce. Lack of maintenance means backup power plants at dams around Caracas don’t work, Bausson said. Distribution systems in states like Zulia in the west, centrally located Cojedes and Aragua and Anzoategui in the east depend on the national electricity grid, which went down last week.

Efforts to reach Hidrocapital were unsuccessful.

Filthy Water

Near the San Augustin slum in the western part of Caracas, an old man was dragging a pushcart across a main highway with three plastic barrels of water on Monday.

Two skinny children ran with two empty plastic containers in each hand to reach the long line of people who, like the old man, filled containers from a broken pipe that flowed into the polluted Guaire River.

Caracas Goes Thirsty as Power Crisis Shuts Down Water Plants

People pushed each other to fill containers. Some were barefoot, stepping in the fetid river that runs through the capital. The smell was nauseating.

Residents said they had been without fresh water since last week, and recovered electricity only on Sunday.

“It’s the first time we’ve had to do this, but we’ve run out of the water we had in containers,” said Judirisbeth Ramos. “We know we can’t drink from this water, but at least it is good for bathing.”

Weighing Odds

Jose Yepez, a 39-year-old barber, sat on the bank of the Guaire, shirtless and with four five-liter plastic containers. He hesitantly observed those jockeying for water. 

“I don’t know whether to grab water, because I have two little girls, 4 and 2 years old, and I’m afraid they’ll get sick,” he said. “Hospitals aren’t working. We buy water to drink, but we no longer have it to bathe. But this is very dirty.”

Two policewoman controlled traffic and children competed to see who could lift more liters and climb the steep stairs faster to get home.

Nearby, angry residents took to the streets for an impromptu protest, blocking the scant traffic on one of the city’s main arteries, beating empty containers and chanting. Hundreds of residents descended from the nearby hillside slum, holding buckets or jugs as they shouted “We want water and electricity.”

Members of the national guard, which is deployed to suppress internal dissent, showed up in riot gear to disperse them.

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